Lee Daniels, the eclectic director whose previous films include the grim Oscar-winner, Precious, and the pulpy The Paperboy takes on the historical epic in his latest film. Lee Daniels’ The Butler, written by Danny Strong. It’s a noble film, one that shows the great steps taken to secure Civil Rights for African-Americans in the United States. While its intentions and heart are in the right place, with so much ground to cover (the 1950s through the ’80s), Lee Daniels’ The Butler feels rushed at times, clunky at others. Still, with Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey at the fore, and a long list of cameos by some of our greatest actors, this is still a moving film, primarily because of Whitaker’s excellent performance.
The film opens in 2009, with a retired old man names Cecil Gaines (Whitaker) waiting in the White House. Through voice over and flashback, he tells us his life story, starting in the 1920s Jim Crow south, where, as a boy, he was a field worker with his parents. In one afternoon, Cecil witnesses his mother raped by an abusive white employer, and his father murdered in cold blood for defending her honor. Young Cecil is taken into the big house by the kindly white plantation owner (Vanessa Redgrave) and taught to be house servant boy. Just like that, his life has been predetermined for him.
When he reaches adulthood, Cecil sets off on his own to find his place in the world. If not for the kindness of an older hotel servant (Clarence Williams, III), Cecil might have wound up dead due to a life of crime and poverty. Cecil becomes a hotel servant (this is where Whitaker takes over the role) and his fine work and knack for keeping his opinion to himself gets him recruited to Washington DC and the White House.
By this time it’s the late ‘50s and Eisenhower is in power. As played by Robin Williams, Ike is portrayed as a kind man struggling with the issue of Civil Rights. Through his position as the butler to the president, Cecil is able to witness extraordinary private moments, as Eisenhower and the men who succeed him grapple with decisions that will effect the entire country. Because this film is primarily about Civil Rights and the treatment of black people throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, we’re only privy to those times when the presidents are discussing how to deal with the issue.
Each Commander-in-Chief is allowed a moment of sympathy, more so than others. JFK (James Marsden) comes off the best, while Nixon (John Cusack) is portrayed as the least trustworthy (no surprise there). LBJ (Liev Schrieber) is played as a cantankerous caricature, while Reagan (Alan Rickman) comes across as benevolent, yet dim to the larger issue of human rights on South Africa. Throughout it all, Cecil and his two co-workers/best friends (Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) serve with dignity and respect.
At home, Cecil’s life is less stable. His wife Gloria (Oprah) feels neglected and turns to booze and the attention of her slick neighbor (a great Terrence Howard). The Gaines family also has two sons. The eldest, Louis (David Oyelowo) is outspoken and rebellious. While Cecil adheres to more conservative values, Louis is a left leaning radical, participating in sit-ins, freedom rides, protest marches and the Black Panthers. Louis’ brother, Charlie (Elijah Kelly), is more respectful appreciative of the work his father does. The conflict of the film is drawn between Cecil and his home life. His job provides a roof over their heads and food on the table, yet the dedication to the job has left his wife seeking companionship and a son eager to leave the house.
Most of the historical changes we see occur through Louis’ eyes. Cecil remains stoic and unchanged through most of the film, That, to me, was one of the problems with Lee Daniels’ The Butler. While Whitaker is excellent in his portrayal, Cecil, the character’s transformation happens too late in the game. Moreover, it comes rather suddenly, with no hints that what’s going on in the country (aside from the safety of Louis) is effecting him. It’s true that Cecil’s life lessons have trained him never to show his emotions, but I wish there had been just a little more in the way of his character letting out his feelings.
Another issue I had with Lee Daniels’ The Butler. was Winfrey’s performance throughout the first half of the film. As a gin drinking party girl who smokes one cigarette after another, it just didn’t work for me. However, when Gloria gets sober, Winfrey is magnificent. She’s particularly effective during a reunion scene between Louis and the family. The scene features Gloria slapping the older son and spewing out an angry defense of Cecil. It is some fine acting. In a year of some superb acting by women in supporting roles, Winfrey’s uneven performance may have hurt her chances for awards. However, Oprah didn’t take this role to win awards; her presence helped get Lee Daniels’ The Butler made.
To me, that’s one of the main reasons you should watch Lee Daniels’ The Butler: to support stories like these in hopes that more historically based dramas, especially ones about the black experience in America, get produced. It frustrates me that a man as talented as Daniels, a director who just a few years ago was being hailed as the future of cinema, struggles to make the kind of movies he wants to. Sadly, Daniels fits right in with other master storytellers who must work outside the mainstream to tell character stories on a grand scale.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler. was a hit film when it was in theaters last year. Here’s hoping the good will shown by movie lovers extends into the home video market. I can’t guarantee that you’ll be wowed by everything in Lee Daniels’ The Butler., but you will be moved, and you will walk away feeling you’ve seen something of substance.
The Blu-ray contains a featurette on the making of the film, a documentary about the original Freedom Riders, deleted scenes and a music video by Gladys Knight and Lenny Kravitz. It also comes with a DVD copy and digital download of the movie.